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Benjamin Percy: In Touch with the Tooth and Claw

January 13, 2014

Alicia Oltuski talks with the novelist about writing habits, slippery science, and terror.

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Image courtesy Benjamin Percy

Werewolves are not the scariest property of Red Moon, Benjamin Percy’s second novel and fourth book—which considers nationalism and xenophobia, community and isolation, medicine, war, nature, as well as werewolves, or lycans. The book inhabits a world we recognize, with a keener sense of doom, plus fur. Meticulously braided, its sequence of related narratives oscillates tensely between the potential for disaster and disaster delivered.

It’s also a work that encourages consideration of our species’ strong impulse toward the pursuit of fear. We solicit it in our artwork; we chase it. Before reading Red Moon I’d largely thought of fear as originating from one of two sources: an existential threat, or that other eerier brand of fright that lives between the familiar and the foreign, what Freud labeled the “uncanny.” Red Moon employs both. Percy plucks werewolves from their traditional place in the primal realm and filters them through the mode of the weird and of the real. That’s a common thread in his notably eclectic body of work: rendering terrifying situations freshly and uniquely terrifying.

I’ve always felt that you must increase the precision of prose in relation to the weirdness of the situation.

For the conventionally terrifying, he goes skydiving.

—Alicia Oltuski for Guernica

Guernica: I’d like to talk about rules a little bit, specifically the rules you set up for yourself in your new book Red Moon. In college Max Apple used to remind us that the most important part of the surreal is the real. That lesson is something that stood out to me in your novel. You create a world that’s very much rooted in reality, so much so that the chief magic element–werewolves–functions as an outgrowth of the book’s world, rather than an additive. The werewolf controversy in Red Moon exists alongside, rather than in place of, some of the very parts of American history it’s meant to elicit. I’m interested in how you came to set up the parameters of this novel. Did they emerge organically or did you ever sit down and come up with some basic tenets? What was the housekeeping like for this novel?

Benjamin Percy: I hoped to achieve credibility through pseudo-science. I sat down with researchers from the USDA labs and from Iowa State University and filled up many yellow legal tablets when interviewing them about animal-borne pathogens, mutation and vaccination. The idea was to ground the supernatural–make my werewolves (or lycans, as I call them) not full-moon howlers but a believable horror. Something that could happen. Very little is known about prions (the misfolded protein responsible for Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting Disease), so I chose this as my gateway. This tradition of slippery science carries back some time, but maybe it was Richard Matheson who accomplished it most impactfully in I Am Legend. This is, as you put it, an attempt to make the surreal real. I’ve always felt that you must increase the precision of prose in relation to the weirdness of the situation. You’ll see an outgrowth of this in the world-building I attempt, not just in relation to the disease but in the historical, economic and political influences of the infected living among us since prehistoric times. I spent a good year thinking about the book before I began writing it, so I had most of these details worked out in advance.

Guernica:A year! That takes a great deal of discipline. Sometimes people talk about the discipline necessary to write, but there’s probably also some discipline involved in *not* writing, right? Did you do other work while you abstained from beginning New Moon?

Benjamin Percy: I can’t not write. When I avoid the keyboard I feel as I do when I avoid the gym: poisoned, cranky. I try to maintain as strict a schedule as possible, ideally with the same hours, but sometimes, when that’s impossible, I’ll still sneak in an hour at night or in the afternoon, just to get my hit. So yes, during that year, I was revising my first novel and hammering out articles and short stories. This is my standard actually. I’ll work on something long–and then break from it and pound out a few shorties or mess with a screenplay. That helps me process the longer work better, gives me perspective, and it also varies my time at the keyboard enough that I never suffer from writer’s block.

I also push [my students] to subscribe to a few literary magazines. These are the front lines of literature.

Guernica: Yeah, it seems everyone is happiest when the writer(s) in a household is writing steadily. At least a part of what allows writers to do that, of course, is the existence and support of various outlets for publication, including literary journals. I remember being a reader at The Paris Review when one of your stories was being published. There was a palpable excitement in that office surrounding new work, and I know that’s the case for many literary magazines out there. Can you tell me a bit about what TPR and other journals have meant not only to your career, but also to your development as a writer? What do magazines offer emerging writers? And which journals are on your regular must-read list?

Benjamin Percy: Whenever students approach me and ask who they should be reading, I give them some titles, but I also push them to subscribe to a few literary magazines. These are the front lines of literature. You get to be a first reader, get blown out of your trench by Andrea Barrett or Rick Bass or Karen Russell or Anthony Doerr, a story few have read—before the prizes, before the book deals, before the anthologies and classroom discussions. You can discover writers—writers you may have never heard of—and then seek out other work by them. Years ago, I read Alan Heathcock’s story in VQR—“The Peacemaker”—and it totally destroyed me. This guy had black powder in his fingers. I reached out to him and we struck up a lasting friendship–and it was such a joy to see that story later collected in Volt (published by Graywolf Press).

And for the writer, the literary journal is essential as a sounding board. This is the first audience, the first response to something they have composed in solitude. The reaction they get might encourage them to expand the story into a novel, write a linked collection, continue to wrestle with the same theme.

If you’re submitting your work, and you don’t subscribe to journals, I’m going to put a voodoo curse on you: your stories and essays and poems will hereafter suck and no one will take them. You have to support the system you expect to support you. I don’t read them front to back—I browse, dive in and out. I stash one in the bathroom, one in the kitchen, one in the car, one in my backpack, a few in the living room. Whenever I have a free minute—even if I’m pumping gas—I’ll dive in to a poem or start a story. Tin House is my favorite journal. But it’s in good company. I’m in love with One Story, McSweeney’s, Idaho Review, Missouri Review, Hobart. I’m a constant Tin House reader, but I rotate out my other subscriptions.

I like to get together with writers, but on a daily basis, I’d rather be talking to the vet down the road about how he put down a horse or my EMT buddy about how he took the shock paddles to someone in cardiac arrest. Real life to antidote all the fantasy and business.

Guernica: I’m thinking a bit about what unites those publication. In addition to their quality, they also share an inclination toward publishing sundry aesthetics and styles. That’s something that can be said about you as a writer. Your work’s subject matter is as eclectic as its mood, and tone, and even form. You like to mix things up, right?

Benjamin Percy: Yeah, I like to mix things up. I’ll jump genres. I’ll test myself–trying to write a story in first person plural, trying to write a story from an alternate religious or cultural or sexual orientation, trying to write a non-linear story, trying to write a political story, trying to write an epic, trying to write a story with no sentence longer than twelve words in an effort to be more spare and economic, trying to write a story that’s omniscient. Experiments and challenges keep things fresh and exciting, keep me from getting caught in a rut. I also work on many different projects at once. I’ll mess around with the novel and then break from it to write a short story. In the evenings, I might mess around with screenplays or nonfiction. For this reason, I’ve never been blocked. If I’m lost or bored with something, I jump into another project and then circle back with renewed energy and a fresh perspective.

Guernica: One thing with which people often credit you is capturing what it means to be a man in an age when many preconceptions about gender have long since been marked with an expiration date. Being a “masculine writer” is a marker that’s been directed your way. Is it one you embrace?

Benjamin Percy: I don’t really think about it. I find labels—whether you’re calling someone an Asian writer or a Jewish writer or a Southern writer or a Catholic writer—generally unhelpful and often annoying. I have a disturbingly low voice. People say I “stand like a dude.” I drive a truck. I drink a lot of bourbon and I wear a lot of denim and I chop a lot of wood. People might get me, or their perceptions of me, mixed up with my writing. The characters in Red Moon come from all different geographic and cultural and religious and political backgrounds—they’re old and young, men and women. The two central characters everyone rallies around, the heroes of the novel are an eighteen-year-old girl and a thirty-five-year-old woman.

Guernica: And anyway, Red Moon looks not so much at “What does it mean to be man as opposed to woman?” as “What does it mean to be man as opposed to beast?”

Benjamin Percy: From the very beginning, I’ve been chasing that question. It’s the central concern of The Wilding, my first novel. In it, the intersection of civilization and wilderness is jarring, and all of the characters are struggling with some sort of wildness ready to claw its way out of them. I like to say that I’ve never stopped writing about werewolves, that we’re all hairy on the inside.

Nothing makes you feel more alive than putting your foot over the edge of a cliff–and pulling it back.

Guernica: Who sees your writing first?

Benjamin Percy: Some people seek out writing groups, but I suffered through enough of that in grad school and can generally anticipate comments, remembering all too well the gripes and concerns of the ghosts of workshops past. And some people seek out their writer buddies for advice, but I spend a lot of hours marking up student manuscripts and I don’t want that to carry over into my free time. I assume, if I don’t have enough time to edit, my pals don’t either, so we never ask each other (with a few, rare exceptions). I generally am not fond of any sort of writing community. Unless I’m in front of a crowd, in a classroom, a bookstore, I don’t want to talk shop. I spend eight hours at the keyboard a day—and an hour or two reading every night—and I need something else to fill the rest of my time. Every now and then, I like to get together with writers, but on a daily basis, I’d rather be talking to the vet down the road about how he put down a horse or my EMT buddy about how he took the shock paddles to someone in cardiac arrest. Real life to antidote all the fantasy and business. Anyway, what I’m getting at is, I want to keep the conversation as small as possible, so I give the writing to my agent, the exceptionally sharp and generous Katherine Fausset at Curtis Brown, and then to my editor. And that’s it.

Guernica: Do you think we ever unnecessarily broaden the conversation today? Social media? Email? Interviews like this? Or are these different?

Benjamin Percy: I guess you could think of social media as a larger, more carnivalesque version of the workshop. You put something out there, something manufactured, something meant to elicit a certain emotional response—whether a photo or a thought or a remembered conversation or an excerpt from something you read or wrote—and everybody likes it or ignores it, maybe says something nasty or affirming or clever in response. This serves some writers well. Gives them a sense of community, a virtual MFA program or AWP conference. But because we live in a time of constant exposure, oversharing, some people seem to put too much creative energy into outlets like Facebook and Twitter and place too much value on how people respond. As long as you don’t let it own you, as long as you’re able to separate yourself from it, I think it’s fine. I prefer silence to noise. I’d rather be alone than in the company of others. But a dose of wild chatter every now and then can be fun. Drama. Overheard gossip. I’m a strict person, hard on myself, bullying the words out every day, logging a few too many hours a week at the keyboard. To make sure that happens, I treat email more like snail mail (two weeks is usually my window for responding) and I almost never answer the phone and I log on to social media only in between projects. This way I can maintain that singular relationship with the page.

Since we’re so safe these days—everything belted and padded and helmeted, everyone living in well-lit, air-conditioned, heated spaces—I’m eager to disrupt that comfort now and then.

Guernica: Being hard on yourself—does that come from you as a writer or you as a person? Are you strict with yourself in general?

Benjamin Percy: My super powers are deep focus and stubbornness. Whether I’m tearing down wallpaper or chopping wood or writing a story, I usually disturb people with my single-mindedness. I don’t take breaks. I can work for fourteen hours without complaint. In a way, I’m always working. I inherited this from my parents. Both of them work tirelessly. When I was growing up, they built our house, logged and split wood to heat us through the winter, hunted and processed all our meat, grew our fruits and vegetables, in addition to juggling the responsibilities of their jobs. Every day I had a long list of chores to accomplish. We never took a vacation, not in the standard sense. We’d drive into the scablands of eastern Oregon and work all day at pulling fish out of the river or fossils and geodes out of the ground. Maybe because of this, the way I was raised, I have this constant drive, an urgency to accomplish something. So it’s pretty much impossible for me to relax. Even when I’m watching a film, I’m taking notes in a yellow legal tablet. If I’m working, I’m generally happy. But I also have an ugly temper, and it almost exclusively shows its fangs when I’m not getting something done.

Guernica: Tell me (and readers) one thing you haven’t told anyone else.

Benjamin Percy: I am the lord of an international heroin cartel and live in a concrete compound surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by pit bulls armed with assault rifles.

Guernica: Staffordshire or Bull Terrier? The people want to know.

Benjamin Percy: They’re a new breed entirely that I developed in my secret laboratory. They also know how to type. I’ve got them transcribing my next novel from dictation.

Guernica: I think that was an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” On the topic, there’s a lot about the worlds you create in your writing that’s scary. Your characters often stagger at the edge of disaster. Do you yourself like to be scared?

Benjamin Percy: I love to get my pulse pounding. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, gone hang-gliding, visited a heroin den undercover, climbed a 250-foot old growth Douglas fir and spent the night in it. I’m trying to get a diving-with-sharks article approved. Nothing makes you feel more alive than putting your foot over the edge of a cliff—and pulling it back. And since we’re so safe these days—everything belted and padded and helmeted, everyone living in well-lit, air-conditioned, heated spaces—I’m eager to disrupt that comfort now and then. Get in touch with the tooth-and-claw. Horror movies and 70 mph roller coasters are low-grade versions of the same.

Guernica: Tell me about the heroin den.

Benjamin Percy: I was an intern at an NBC affiliate my junior year of college. They sent me on undercover assignments with this special shirt they borrowed from Dateline. It was a billowing shapeless flannel with a hidden camera nested in the breast button and a battery pack that nested in the small of my back. One of my assignments was to check out “what was really happening” in the nightlife of this city. So I went to an S&M club where people were dancing in cages and there was this giant medieval-looking wheel you could get strapped on for a whipping. I hit a lot of locations like this, one of which was an underground thrash metal club. It was full of dudes with shaved heads that revealed the tats on their scalps. When I walked in, the band was raging and the mosh pit extended across the entire dance floor. The ceiling was low with exposed pipes and timbers—one guy with a massive mohawk was hanging upside down and punching people while they punched and kicked him. I noticed a steady stream of people wandering behind stage and after awhile decided to follow them—through a series of dimly lit corridors and into a black-lit room with a mattress on the floor and graffiti coating the walls. There were people lying around, shooting up and taking skunky hits from bongs. I hung out there for about an hour and then this one skeletal-looking woman started rubbing my head and my neck and my back. When her hand hit the battery pack, she stopped suddenly. “What is that?” she said. “What the hell is that?” She started freaking out and other people were staring at us. I had a moment of quick thinking and said, “I have diabetes—that’s my insulin pack.” Then I sprang up and bolted for my car. This early stint in journalism (I also wrote for my school paper) captures my standard sort of strategy when writing. Talk to taxidermists, morticians, brewmasters, Marines, politicians, construction workers, the postal service, jump in their trucks, wander through their offices, fire off questions and fill up my head with the imaginative possibilities brought on by front-line research.

Alicia Oltuski is the author of Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR’s Berlin Stories, in W Magazine, The Faster Times, The Bulletin in Philadelphia, and other publications. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband.

Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon and The Wilding, as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. His honors include a fellowship from the NEA, the Whiting Writers’ Award, two Pushcart Prizes, the Plimpton Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.

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